Spidercake

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Village SpiderOn the evening after the night of the full moon, the messenger who had been sent to find help approached the Third Village with a small force from one of the monarchs of a nearby land.  They encountered the eerie sight of dead bodies on the road before they reached the village.  The skin of each body was drained of all color and pocked with lesions, the limbs bent unnaturally, and each face was frozen in anguish.

When the force of soldiers reached the village and dismounted, they were greeted by a most awesome and terrible sight.  The dead lay everywhere.  On the streets, at the thresholds of homes, by the well.  The bodies were gruesomely bloated, pale, and the limbs were constricted in awkward angles and poses.  Most were covered in cobwebs.

*****

In those times, what is now a kingdom was a small group of peaceful villages inhabited by people of good grace and skillful craft.  So far were they from both the marvels and troubles of vaster and nobler lands, and so humble and simple their lives and possessions, that they never suspected any would covet what they had.  So it was that they had no defense and gave no resistance when they were invaded by a band of marauders.  The elder of one of the villages, which was called simply the Third Village, managed to send a messenger out in the confusion of running and screaming and slaughter.  A youth of sixteen summers he was, who reluctantly left behind a frail grandmother and a young sister to be defended only by his gentle mother and father.  But he flew and he escaped the noticed of the marauders.  They had swords and crossbows and maces, and more hopeless still for the villagers, they had skill in fighting.  Some of the villagers resisted, but they were struck down so easily it was as if they were small children fighting grown men and women.

Before too many could be killed, the elder of the Third Village called out to his people to lay down their arms of pitchforks and staves and surrender to the mercy of the marauders.  The marauders were led by not just one but a pair,  of a leaders, a man and a woman bound by brutality.  It was the man who sat in the high chair in the largest hut, the chair reserved for the elder.  The man had the surviving villagers brought before him and he surveyed them all with a greedy leer.  The woman stood behind him, a great double-edged sword strapped to her back.  She had a long-healed scar at her chin and an unsettling expression of restraint in her eyes.

They let the village elder come forward and speak.  The elder humbly cautioned the leaders not to use or abuse the villagers against their will for there was a curse upon the village.  So if ever the marauders needed anything, he asked that they bring their demands to him, so that he could arrange for their pleasures.  At this the man who led the marauders laughed for he had heard such empty cautions from the elders of other villages they had conquered.  And he taunted the villagers, for if there was such a curse, how could the marauders have found the village, attacked it, and defeated it so quickly.  The man told the elder that the marauders would take from their village and all the villages around them what he would and nothing and no one would stop him.

And the village elder knew that it was true.  For even if the messenger he sent found a horse along his way and found his way to a noble or a monarch who could send soldiers or law-keepers to the village, and even in the fair weather of spring, it would take weeks for such a force to reach them.  The villages were far from the troubles of vaster settlements, but so were they far from the help and protection those settlements could provide.

Thereafter, the marauders ruled the Third Village.  They allowed the villagers to bury and mourn their dead for one day.  The next day, they commanded the villagers to go about their daily business, and ordered that all the village produced be brought to the elder’s hut, where their leaders now resided.  They kept a strict watch on the villagers.  And the leaders made new and cruel punishments.  Before a week was done, the healer’s hut was full of villagers who had been whipped for displeasing a guard, or whose hands had been severed for trying to take an extra piece of bread, or whose eyes were gouged out for casting an unfavorable glance toward the leaders.

The villagers returned to their duties in terror.  Hands of farmers trembled as they milked the cows to produce milk, and cheese, and cream for the leaders.  The voices of small children trembled as they were brought before the leaders to sing sweet melodies.  The blacksmith nearly crushed his thumb forging more cruel weapons.  The baker’s heart ached as she saw all her goods delivered to the marauders, and her people left maimed and bloodied for accepting more than the meager share she was allowed to give them.

And the village elder suffered guilt so intolerable that his only respite was sleep and it was no respite, for his sleep was haunted by nightmares filled with the mutilated bodies of his people.  The once happy village had become a pit of torment.  And though the leaders of the marauders held obvious contempt for the easily conquered villagers, they were not so foolish as to let the villagers gather and speak freely, for they were deeply suspicious.  They would not risk the chance that the village had a few sharp minds.

***

One morning in that first week, a few dead guards were found among the marauders.  The villagers were kept from congregating out of curiosity.  But the elder approached the leaders as they had the bodies moved to an the area outside of the village where lay the graves of those who were buried and not burned.  The village elder feigned fear and made superstitious signs.  He still hoped that if the marauders began to believe there really was a curse on this village, they might leave.  And he wondered if there was any trickery that he or his people could manage under the careful watch of the marauders that would spread such fear.

But when a few more of the marauders died in the following days, the villagers themselves began to wonder if there was a curse, not on the village, but carried by the marauders.  The elder heard the rumors, and they spread despite how dangerous it was to speak ill of their oppressors.  In vain, he tried to soothe and comfort his people.

That same evening, he was called before the leaders.  He entered the hut that was his hut and saw the high chair upon which he should have been sitting.  And he bowed before the usurper who sat there in his stead.  It was the woman this time.  The man stood behind her.  And he told the elder that whatever was causing the deaths of his marauders—be it curse or treachery—the elder was tasked with stopping it.  For if the elder did not stop the deaths, then a villager would die for each marauder who died.

***

There was a young woman in the Third Village who called herself a naturalist, for she had set herself the duty—the profession so she claimed—of studying nature.  At this she was mildly mocked, for the villagers would say that all who lived in nature studied nature.  Her habits were tolerated because of her youth.  One night under the guise of a healer seeking to calm the nerves of the elder, she was allowed to see him by a marauder guard who took pleasure in the news of the elder’s despair.  It was she who told the village elder what was killing the marauders.

The young woman wasted no time.  She whispered her knowledge to the elder.  For she had seen the bodies of the dead marauders.   Some unusual features of the bodies reminded her of something she had seen in her studies when she had visited faraway towns.  There was a spider that lived in the forest surrounding the villages.  It was small, so small that its bites often could not been seen.  The villagers sometimes suffered a few of them in homes that were not swept entirely clean.  The spiders were not considered dangerous, for their bite caused naught but a welt in most and perhaps a few hours of throbbing pain for those more sensitive.  A time or two a villager who was already sickened or near death may have died after being bitten.  But no villager had died of this spider’s bite alone.  Not even infants.  Not even the elderly.  But it was known that those who traveled far from their home might be sickened by the air or water of new towns and cities, or perhaps by newly encountered creatures.   The young naturalist believed this is what was happening to the marauders.  To test her theory, she had intentionally released one upon a marauder when he came to the healer’s hut and lay upon a cot demanding treatment for a small bruise on his arm.  The girl examined the bruise carefully to assure that it was not caused by an existing spider bite.  She held the spider to his skin as he lay on the cot.  She saw the bite.  The marauder didn’t seem to have felt it.  After only moments, she saw a welt, and the marauder began to complain of an itching and throbbing pain where he had been bitten.  The young naturalist told him he was welcome to stay in the cot as long as he wished.  As she suspected he would, however, he left and spoke naught of the pain to his fellows.  The marauders abhorred all weakness and she knew he had only come to the healing hut to further terrorize the villagers who were recovering there, in the village’s last remaining haven.

By morning the bitten marauder was dead.  And though it was only one, the young naturalist was convinced that she was right.  She felt sickened by her ruthlessness, for she would bear the burden of his blood on her hands.  But so too did she feel vindicated and hopeful.  She had used the spider as a weapon.

She showed it to the elder.  It was a common brown house spider.  When the elder looked more closely, he discerned a small mark on its back that made him start.  It was slightly darker than the rest of the spider’s body, and it seemed a solid triangle, the symbol of warning.  The naturalist gave it to the elder so that he may present it to the leaders of the marauders and save his people from their fury.  In the meantime, she would devise some means of repelling the spiders and they could give that to the marauders as well.  The elder saw both the wisdom and the folly in the young woman’s plan and in her futile hope that the marauders were as honest and well-intentioned as she was.

Despite their word, the leaders would kill every villager if they so chose.  They valued power not honor.  And they had no prolonged need for the villagers, for they had no intention to settle in the village.  That was clear from the way they kept their bundles and packs ready to leave.  Perhaps they suspected that a message might have gone out from at least one of the villages they had sacked.  Or perhaps it was simply their way to be as a plague, sweeping through and laying waste to a region, and spreading ever farther, leaping carelessly from place to place.

And if the elder revealed the secret of the only thing that troubled the marauders, he would give them the only weapon the villagers had.  An idea sparked in the wily mind of the elder.  An idea that would risk his whole village.  An idea that if it worked would save his people from death by inviting death.

***

He asked many questions of the naturalist then and saw in her bright eyes that she understood.  For he asked her if death would come faster if there were many spider bites.  And he asked her what if anything she had done to make the spider bite.  And he asked her how long it took for a single spider to hatch a brood and how long for that brood to mature.  The young naturalist had the answers, for she had been studying the mystery from the very first deaths.  And she had already bred some spiders in the few weeks since.  It would be difficult, but if the people fed and protected them, they might be able to breed thousands of spiders in the span of a fortnight.  The season was warm.  The spider was small and would not require too many molts to reach maturity.  And they were hardy and could survive in captivity for some days if properly cared for.  The villagers could breed them in secret in their very homes.  And then release them upon the marauders all at once.  The idea was mad, but thus far, the spiders were the only effective weapon the villagers had against the marauders.

The elder needed a way to let the villagers move freely and stray from their routines, as they prepared their plan.  And he needed to keep the marauders in a merciful mood.  For surely more of them would die while the villagers bred their deadly weapons.  The marauders had gotten used to the hearty food they were eating in the village, and they relished every chance to demonstrate their might against the helpless villagers.  So the elder had the villagers spread the rumor of a moon festival held each month and their rue that there would be no celebration that month.

The leaders once again called the elder before them.  They challenged him to explain why he had not informed them of the moon festival.  The elder feigned fear and worry and confusion.  And he wept, and the tears were real for he called upon his despair and doubt about the plan.  Though neither the man nor the woman was particularly bright, each was deeply suspicious.  The elder did not expect pity, but he hoped they would feel so much contempt and revulsion that any remaining fear or worry they had of his power or influence would be shattered.  He begged them to let him make arrangements for the celebration.  And they consented.

Now that the leaders thought him broken, they let the villagers speak to him.  For they thought his despair would infect them.  And that seeing their wise and respected leader broken would break them as well.  But the naturalist had done her job of spreading word that the elder had a plan, a dangerous plan.  So weary were the villagers of pain and fear and suffering that they welcomed any word of an end to their plight, even if that end came with their deaths.

***

The elder called together the blacksmith, the baker, and the chandler.  If there was to be a celebration, the marauders would not let the villagers stay in their homes.  So the villagers would not be able to release the spiders from their homes.  The plan must include a way for the villagers to bring out and release the spiders all at once.

Even though the spider’s bites should not be deadly to the villagers, they still might be painful.  And each villager had to be prepared to run or to fight should anything go wrong with their plan.  So the chandler’s job was to make candles suffused with the oil of a spice that the naturalist had found was abhorrent to the spiders.  He would also make identical candles that were not suffused with the oil for the marauders.  The villagers would tell the difference by a small mark on the end of the candle, a small brown triangle.

The baker’s job was to bake the bread and cakes that the marauders enjoyed so much that they maimed villagers for their share.  But she was to bake them larger and make hollows in them, for that was where the villagers would hide the spiders.  The blacksmith would help by devising new pans with hollows and clever catches and releases so that the spiders could all be released at once.

But the baker protested, for she rightly claimed that no marauder would wait until given permission to break bread and eat.  They would likely begin eating before any loaf could be filled.

The chandler then asked the blacksmith if he could make small canisters that could then be doused in wax and disguised as large candles.  If the canisters could be opened from the bottom, then each villager could release a batch of spiders directly onto some nearby marauder.

The blacksmith agreed that he and his young apprentices could make such canisters.  He also suggested that hiding spiders in the baker’s goods should still be considered.  If she were to bake something big, something that would not be touched until the right moment, the ruse might still work.  He proposed that they gather all their stores of flour and bake a cake as tall and wide around as he was, for he stood a head-and-a-half taller than all the men then in the village, including the marauders.  If the blacksmith and the baker were clever enough, the cake would hide a hollow large enough to contain over half of the spiders they planned to breed.  The cake and the surprise in its center would sit in the middle of the village and the candles would be scattered throughout.

The blacksmith would forge large barrel-sized canisters to hold the frosting for the cake.  But he would forge more than was needed, for some of the barrels would contain the spiders.  At night as the baker sculpted and frosted the cooled cake, someone would roll the proper canister beneath the cake and using the mechanisms cleverly designed by the blacksmith to load the cake without letting a single spider escape.

The plan was elaborate and mad.  And yet the blacksmith, the baker, and the chandler grew excited.  The elder warned them not to show too much diligence in their work, for their greatest hope in not being caught was that the marauders thought them utterly defeated and full of shame and apathy.  It was not difficult for the villagers to follow the elder’s instruction in this, for all they need do was to look upon those among them who had suffered the whip or the loss of a limb to the cruelty of the marauders.

Every day and every hour, the details of the plan fell into place.  Hope grew in the villagers even as they wore the mask of despair.  The blacksmith forged a giant cake pan and under the noses of the marauders that guarded him, he built into the pan a collapsible column in the center that would create the cake’s hollow.  The naturalist said they could keep the spiders from dying or getting too agitated if they added a powder to the cake that she had discovered from some readings.  The powder would help the cake rise so well that it would look fuller and be lighter than it would otherwise be.  That would mean that the hollow within the cake could be rather large without the cake—and their plan—collapsing.

And every day and every hour, spiders were born.

***

The night of the full moon came.  And the festival with it.  In the center of the village were tables full of food.  Glazed meats, still-steaming loaves of bread, fruits, and vegetables.  The villagers had never made such an extravagant feast.  At the very center of it all was an enormous cake atop a sturdy table crafted by the blacksmith to hold such a weight.  From the cake came the subtle scent of flowers.  The baker was smoothing the last of the frosting when the villagers and the marauders began to gather.

There were no speeches and no joy, for it was an awkward thing to be celebrating subjugation.  The elder merely walked up to the cake.  The villagers lit their candles.  And the marauders followed suit.  The scent of spice filled the air as the candles of the villagers came alight.  They would release their spiders after the elder released his.  Most if not all of the marauders were in the villager center.

The leaders sat at a table near the center, rather the man sat.  The woman stood beside him.  The elder saw the suspicion on her face.  She could tell that the villagers were hiding something, some trick, some deception, some hope.

The woman stepped toward the elder and halted him just as he was poised to cut the giant cake with the baker’s knife.  She stepped before the cake.  With strange spindly muscles filled with preternatural strength, she pulled her massive sword from the scabbard at her back, and she raised it toward the cake.   There was a wild look in her eye and the elder guessed what she must be thinking.  That assassins were hiding in the cake perhaps.  A foolish thought.  The marauders were still armed, celebration or no.  Any warriors who might burst out of the cake and attack would surely have been brought down by sword or crossbow.  The cake’s girth was large but not large enough to have held more than a few men, half a dozen at most, if they were contorted.  Still, the woman raised her sword and bore down on the cake with a fearsome yell.

She frowned.  The elder knew she did not feel what she had expected to feel.  Her sword had cut through the cake as it might have cut through a cloud.  For the baker had used very little of the bags and bags of flour that had been delivered to her.  A typical cake would have held together with only one slice.  But the baker had baked the cake so cleverly that a single slice collapsed the top of the cake and made a hole half the height of a man.

Out spilled the spiders.

At first it was difficult to tell what they were.  A churning mass of what might have been some filling gushed through the opening with such force that they covered the woman’s chest.  She staggered backward.

Out tumbled the spiders, dripping down the table, spreading, spreading like a relentless pool of impending doom.

There were marauders close to the cake, waiting to be the first to taste it.  They were already covered from head to toe, batting away at themselves.  There were pitchers of water nearby and a few had the presence of mind to reach for them and douse themselves.  But there were too many spiders.  The elder looked out at the crowd.  He saw at once the marauders drawing weapons and the villagers opening their secret canisters by pulling plugs beneath their candles.

Out crawled the spiders from the candles.  The blacksmith had cleverly designed a double-walled canister so that the inner canister could be completely removed and tossed at someone if need be, still leaving the villager with a candle to use that could repel the spiders.

Bolts and arrows and daggers went flying then.  For some of the marauders had reached and used their weapons before they were attacked, or even as they were attacked.  And some of the weapons found their mark in the body of a villager.  There was chaos now.  A chaos of spiders and fire.  A chaos of screaming and fleeing.  A few of the villagers tossed aside their candles and lifted up the arms dropped by the marauders.  Untrained but filled with fury, those villagers struck at the marauders who fell from the spider bites.

Such a sight held no surprise for the elder after all his people had suffered.  But what he did not expect was the actions of the spiders.  The elder marveled.  The villagers had bred far, far more spiders than he imagined.  And they did not just stop at biting.  He had never seen spiders behave in such a way, for spiders did not swarm and they did not cast their webbing with such speed and purpose upon animals so large.  Or he did not think they did, for he had never seen it.  He hoped that the spiders would not turn on him and his people next, despite the candles of spice.

***

On the evening after the night of the full moon, the messenger who had been sent to find help approached the Third Village with a small force from one of the monarchs of a nearby land.  They encountered the eerie sight of dead bodies on the road before they reached the village.  The skin of each body was drained of all color and pocked with lesions, the limbs bent unnaturally, and each face was frozen in anguish.

When the force of soldiers reached the village and dismounted, they were greeted by a most awesome and terrible sight.  The dead lay everywhere.  On the streets, at the thresholds of homes, by the well.  The bodies were gruesomely bloated, pale, and the limbs were constricted in awkward angles and poses.  Most were covered in cobwebs.

An elderly man approached the force, flanked by two others.  The messenger announced that he was the village elder, and the others were the blacksmith and the naturalist.  The naturalist handed the men some pouches filled with fragrance and insisted they all wear them lest they wish to suffer the same fate as the marauders who attached their village.

The soldiers listened to the elder’s fantastic tale.  Most vowed to stay and help the village recover itself, and to fight off any marauders who might have escaped and might seek vengeance.  But it seemed the villagers were familiar enough with the marauders to know that all had perished, save one.

The scarred woman who was one of the leaders had suffered many bites and was in severe pain, for which the villagers had been merciful enough to give her some remedy.  The elder suspected that perhaps long ago her kin had lived in their region, and that she thus had the same resistance to the spiders’ venom as the villagers had.  It was the elder who found her alive after the carnage was over.  And in her eyes he saw that she conceded his victory.  With the elder’s permission, the soldiers took the woman away to be brought to justice by the monarch who ruled the lands on which the village lay.

The spiders were mostly gone, escaped into the forest.  Perhaps they would die out.  Perhaps they would remain protectors.  Perhaps they would become pests, though it was unlikely.  The few that still crawled through the village were being treated with reverence by any villager who encountered them.

Of the several villagers who died in the struggle to free their village, all had died at the hands of marauders.  Only a few villagers had suffered some spider bites, but those villagers were alive and well.

*****

The elder had succeeded in protecting his people, but he had done so at the cost of turning them all into killers.  For he was left with no choice but to lay down and die or rise up and fight.  And both sides had used treachery.  Both marauder and villager had used what advantage each had, be it power or cunning.  The villagers were forever changed.  They still would lift not a hand against those who did them no harm.  And each villager paid penance as he or she saw fit.

But from that time forth, against any who threatened harm, they would defend themselves.  And failing that, they would take vengeance.  From that time forth, they would remember not just the triumph of what they did, but the horror of it, lest they too become as cruel and bloodthirsty as the marauders.

From that time forth, all spiders, but especially their savior, were honored in the village.  It was forbidden to willfully kill a spider.  Those who became bothersome in the home had to be carried out or repelled by gentle means.  And the village was given a name from the word that means “spider” and “spider’s web” in the ancient tongue, Aranea.

And from that time forth, the villagers held a festival on the day of each full moon, at which they always made a hollow cake filled with bits of spiced sugar candy in the shape of tiny spiders.

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel

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